Cod, Is it for Dinner?


In January, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, a national arbiter of fish choices for concerned Americans, announced significant changes to its Seafood Watch list. East Coast fisheries—haddock, pollock, summer flounder and even some stocks of cod—slid from the alarming red “Avoid” zone to “Good alternatives.” Hook-and-line-caught Atlantic haddock was even knighted “Best choice.”

Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly, director of the Seafood Watch program, says the changes were based on developments in management techniques that led to healthier stocks.

This is good news for a variety of actors, including the fish, the fishermen and New England consumers. And it may help solve a conflict that consumers face at the fish counter when considering whether to eat that iconic local fish: cod.

Let me clarify: It may help me solve a conflict at the fish counter. I personally battle two conflicting priorities. I want to support local fishermen—not the big trawlers, not the powerful boats that zoom out for days at a time and scoop out as much as they can—but the fishermen who hew to more traditional methods: smaller boats, shorter trips, more selective gear. They’re part of the New England landscape.

In fact, one could argue that they provided a pillar for the creation of New England as we know it. And in theory, as the appetite for global fish is not going to disappear any time in the near future, I’d like to preserve more environmentally selective fishing methods.

But I’ve steered away from Atlantic cod, whose numbers have been decimated. Until recently, this refrain has played in my mind: How can I in good conscience eat a fish that has been salted and battered to within an inch of its existence? Now, in the face of new fishing regulations, new management techniques and new scientific data, the question has been morphing: Can I now in good conscience eat a fish that has been overfished for a century?

The answer, of course, is a complicated one. It involves history, the lifecycle and feeding proclivites of the fish, fishing management and new opportunities for consumers to purchase from fishermen who are more protective of New England’s resources.

A New England Star

The images may have become clichéd, but they’re worthy of retelling. When Europeans first arrived in New England, the oceans teemed with fish, cod among the most plentiful of all. As Paul Greenberg writes in the book Four Fish, cod and other similar whitefish had the perfect characteristics—an inoffensive mild flavor, good long-term storage potential and plentiful numbers—to make them, in a healthy ecosystem, an “everyman’s fish.” Cod provided the name for the Cape. A wooden cod watches over the Massachusetts State House. In Mark Kurlansky’s book Cod: A Biography of a Fish that Changed the World, he writes that cod elevated New England from poor settlers to an international power.

But the global appetite for cod, from salt cod to fish sticks, combined with technological advances, pushed this everyman’s fish to the brink of extinction. Around 100 years ago, fishermen started heading out with trawlers. Though not as large or powerful as today’s massive bottom-trawlers, those boats were among the first to scrape at the seabed, tearing up rocky nooks that provide hiding places for the fish. These trawlers grew in size, mushrooming into factory ships that invaded and destroyed the cod’s rocky mating and spawning grounds.

The second major destructive innovation hit fish in the 1950s and ’60s, when new boats with more powerful motors allowed even smaller-scale fishermen to zoom farther out to sea and stay out for longer, scooping as much and as quickly as possible. “It was the Wild West,” says John Our, a fisherman out of Chatham, describing his father’s decades at sea.

Cod was so commonly eaten around the world that historians estimate that it was already overfished by the early 1900s, and experienced an even steeper decline in population from the 1950s through to today. The changes in the stock go beyond sheer numbers of fish, too. Fishermen constantly remove the largest and oldest fish (which are also the best for producing the most and healthiest babies), and so today the average size and age of the entire cod population has dipped dramatically. In Canada’s Grand Banks, for instance, the average codfish in the 1960s was about 20 pounds; today, the average codfish is only 3 pounds.

Historians and scientists believe that cod populations in New England today are only about 5%–10% of what they were 200 years ago. And they’ve been cornered into only a small percentage of the coastal habitats they once called home.

Responding to a Crisis

As cod numbers dove to precariously low levels, in the 1970s the government initiated a series of fishing restrictions. Over the decades, officials continually limited the amount of fish that could be caught on any one day at sea. They restricted the days the fishermen could head out to the Atlantic. Then in the 1990s, the National Marine Fisheries Service entirely closed off parts of Georges Bank (an underwater rise off the coast of Massachusetts that’s historically been a crucial fishing ground) to give fish a chance to recover.

Closing Georges Bank did help the codfish stocks, but until recently these regulations have not produced the dramatic recovery that scientists had hoped. In part, the regulations themselves did not have the intended effect in limiting the numbers of dead fish. When fishermen were limited to specific days at sea, they raced out to get as much as they could. If they reached the limit of one species of fish, they simply dumped the rest of that species overboard and continued the search for fish that had not yet reached their quota. Millions of pounds of fish were wasted each year.

But this tide turned in May 2010. After years of review, the New England Fishery Management Council worked with various interested parties to devise a new management system, called “catch shares,” also called a sector management system, that gives fishermen quotas for yearly catches—instead of daily catches—of particular fish. With this system, they don’t have to fight to fish as fast as possible on a given day.

“We’re seeing very strong incentives for people to fish more selectively,” says John Crawford, science and policy manager of the Pew Environment Group.

Eric Hesse, member of a traditional hook-and-line fishermen’s group called the Cape Cod Hook Fishermen’s Association (CCHFA), is so far cautiously enthusiastic about the system. “Fishermen are now able to focus on quality in a way that was impossible under the ‘race for the fish’ system we’ve been living under,” he explains. “When an individual’s [yearly] quota becomes fixed, the only way to increase revenue is to maximize fish quality.”

Growing the Stocks

But while the new catch shares system seems like an improvement to Les Kaufman, a fishery biologist at Boston University and a member of the scientific research council that came up with the plans, he says, “Unfortunately, the devil is in the details.”

First of all, the current system ignores the fact that cod are not one monolithic community. While the management system recognizes two distinct ecosystems—Gulf of Maine to the north of the Cape and Georges Bank to the south—that remains an over- generalized picture of cod populations.

Ted Ames, a former fisherman and a MacArthur “genius grant” award winner for his work recreating a historical picture of cod’s former glory along the New England coast, says that cod used to live in a wide variety of habitats, and that different populations and communities move around those habitats in a variety of ways. Knowing this is crucial, he points out, for rebuilding the stock. “My work is saying that the Nationa l Marine Fisheries Service has managed at one large scale, that of 35,000 square miles. Because of that, they’re unable to see the fine scale population structure of codfish and other species, and their relationships,” explains Ames.

Ames and Kaufman agree that catch shares are a good first step, but eventually, fishermen should be restricted not just on yearly catch, but on the physical area in which they catch it. Ames prefers an ecosystem approach in which the most sensitive areas, such as spawning grounds, are closed off. Other nearby areas would be only open to a limited number of small hook-and-line fishermen. Still farther out, smaller boats with nets and then trawlers could pick up on the growing abundance.

Researchers and fishermen alike also believe that the management system should be adapted to take the size of boats into consideration. BG Brown, who fishes on his 31-foot boat out of Gloucester, says that the current system of catch shares has already pushed many small boats out of the business, as larger operations with deeper pockets can buy up fishing permits. And the fishermen forced out of work are the ones who might be the most intimately knowledgeable about their particular region and fishing ground, and the best potential stewards. According to Brown, “Unless something changes to stop that, the whole fresh, local-caught, day-boat fish could become a thing of the past.”

In addition, says Ames, small-scale fishermen are part of the New England character: “People love to come down and see 30- to 40-foot boats coming in with the day’s catch. Nobody wants to come see a 150-foot vessel pumping fish over the side into a tractor-trailer.”

Food for Cod

Cod have not rebounded the way scientists hoped perhaps only in part because of inherent problems with the conservation plans. Another challenge to the future health of cod might surprise concerned consumers: herring. Cod need to eat, and one of their main sources of sustenance is little fish that historically swarmed the rivers and coastlines. The T stop Alewife is named for just such a fish, a species of river herring.

Local dams installed in the 18th and 19th centuries prevented river herring from leaving the sea to spawn upriver in gravel beds. And current football field–sized trawlers net millions of pounds of river and sea herring for overseas markets and for lobster bait. (Strangely enough, despite the interest in eating smaller fish lower on the food chain, none of this herring is destined for local consumption, which would theoretically be a higher value market. The last cannery in Maine that processed Atlantic herring closed in April 2010, though some East Coast herring is available from Canada.)

Not only are trawlers stealing food from the mouth of cod, tuna and whales, but they’re also dragging in fish such as haddock as bycatch and tossing it back, already dead.

The trawlers are the target of a campaign from a consortium of environmental and fishermen groups that see herring trawlers as a threat to local ecosystems and to fishermen. Interested groups are calling for both dismantling old dams and for more oversight of the trawlers, limits on bycatch and a reduction in the industrial take of herring.

Solutions for Consumers

Scientists say that cod are still in dire shape—but they’re hopeful. There are many communities of cod in our waters, and some are doing better than others (for instance, some Gulf of Maine cod are doing better than those from Georges Bank). New management techniques should keep the trend heading in a positive direction.

That forces me back to my original question: Can I, as a concerned consumer, consider eating cod? All the sources I interviewed told me that there are a number of questions I need to start asking fishmongers and restaurants. Where exactly was the fish caught? How big is the boat? How long did it go out to sea? What was the fishing method?

Ted Ames says to focus on smaller boats that fish locally, those no bigger than about 65 feet: “It’s not the small-boat fleet that’s done the egregious harm. It’s the fact that larger vessels are so mobile that they really don’t have to be concerned about sustainability,” in that they can clean out one area and move on to another. “These guys [fishing in smaller boats] have the ecological knowledge that will allow the fisheries to be rebuilt.”

And there are new tools for consumers in their quest for this information. CSFs, or community-supported fisheries, pair consumers directly with fishermen. Consumers purchase what the fishermen bring in, and the fishermen know they’ll have a market for their catch.

“Our campaign is based on the fact that we need to identify [and manage] local ecologies and ecosystems, and make sure the fishing there isn’t for global markets, but for local markets,” says Niaz Dorry, director of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, which helps run one such CSF. Eric Hesse’s CCHFA runs another. Dorry continues, “and fishermen need to get a fair price so they don’t have to fish for volume, but for local market needs.”

Scientists also point out while that smaller boats fishing for shorter periods of time offers a better choice, the most selective gear on those small boats are hook-and-line methods. This leaves more fish in the waters, and the fish that do get thrown back are more likely to survive than those caught in nets. Researchers also say that the hooks do less damage to fish flesh and can produce a higher quality end product. Brown says that he’s been switching to hook-and-line, even though the process is more labor intensive, but he is not yet able to command higher prices for his higher-quality fish.

Most hook-and-line-caught cod isn’t labeled as such, as New England fish tends to get agglomerated together and sold en masse. But beginning in January 2011, the Cape Cod Hook Fishermen’s Association inked an eight-week pilot agreement with Whole Foods to buy and sell hook-and-line fish, and market it as such. At the publication of this article, consumers should be able to buy hook-and-line-labeled cod in Whole Foods around Boston through March.

As for me? I’m not sure what to do. Haddock looks as if it’s recovering better than cod and might be a better choice. I may be willing to begin occasionally eating cod, if I eat it at restaurants where I know that the owners have personally looked into who catches the fish they serve, or if I buy directly from fishermen, or if stores can assure me that the fish is locally caught, from small boats, and perhaps even caught by hook-and-line. (I should point out that not all nets and trawlers are bad, and that new innovations in gear have enabled some fishermen employing these methods to fish more selectively as well on a smaller scale.)

I know that these questions are a lot to ask of local eaters, but we’ve gotten used to asking such questions about livestock or eggs. And fishermen and scientists alike say that just by asking the questions, consumers can promote change. As fisherman Eric Hesse wrote in an email: “I’ve embarrassed my family regularly by asking (sometimes grilling) wait staff and kitchen staff at restaurants… [about] where their fish comes from.” He doesn’t mind asking. He wants to keep his job—and the fish—alive.

Cynthia Graber has been following fisheries and marine research for the past decade, and has reported on the topic for NPR, the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, Scientific American and others. She particularly enjoys the cod cheeks from Craigie on Main. Contact her at .